Parenting a Child With Depression

Many times as parents we feel alone. We are in unchartered territory. Even if you have 6 children, each one comes with their own unique joys and challenges, making each parenting experience a novel one. This is, at no time, more true than when your child has a medical or mental health diagnosis. We may not understand the diagnosis, not know how to help or what the best treatment or course of action may be, and all of these factors contribute to those feelings of uncertainty, and our own anxiety.

When you have a child who is experiencing depression it can be a sad and scary place for parents. To hear your child make disparaging statements about themselves or struggle to connect with others, act out or cry is heartbreaking, confusing, frustrating, and frightening.

Like many “invisible” diagnoses, depression can be hard to understand and hard for parents to distinguish from typical developmental challenges or temporary sadness or anger.

Like many “invisible” diagnoses, depression can be hard to understand and hard for parents to distinguish from typical developmental challenges or temporary sadness or anger. (If you haven’t seen my post about Depression in Children, check that out to learn more about the difference between depression and sadness. When a child breaks his arm, we can see it on an X-Ray, we notice the cast, we don’t need to question why he is crying in pain, refusing to use his arm, is more irritable or may be extra needy.  It’s tougher to handle a child who is hurting emotionally and it seems there is no “quick fix,” magic formula or “cast” that will provide immediate relief. In brief, we can feel helpless.

 Here is a short, but actionable list of ways we can parent more effectively when our children are experiencing depression.

  • Accept the diagnosis-There are so many factors that influence our mental health and it is sometimes a mystery as to “why” your child may be diagnosed with depression. However, depression causes real pain, real symptoms, and usually responds well to treatment. The sooner we accept that this is something our child and family will need to manage, the sooner we can let go of guilt, anxiety, and put on our “let’s handle this” hat.

  • Learn About Depression-Hopefully you have a skilled child therapist you are working with who will help to explain and demystify the symptoms. Take it upon yourself to become your own expert on the topic, just be wary of “Dr. Google.” Try to find reputable sources (journals, The Mayo Clinic, NAMI, etc.), and check in with your child’s doctor or therapist if you have questions about what it all means.

  • Validate Your Child’s Feelings-As parents, we are ALWAYS solving problems and putting out fires! This is one situation in which you don’t have to “solve the problem.” It’s hard for parents to do what a professional can, and in fact, there is no “problem to be solved” but really just some symptoms and emotions that need to be managed. It’s so easy to tell kids, “It’s not that bad, don’t be sad, you don’t mean that” in an attempt to help them “feel better” and effectively, make ourselves feel better as parents. It’s imperative that you allow your children to express their emotions and just validate that it must be so hard to have those feelings. This becomes particularly hard when we hear our child struggle with self esteem. “You are a good at…don’t be silly” will not help the issue.

  • Take Care of Yourself-If you have been with me for five minutes, you have heard me say this! That’s because it’s important, so listen close! You have to be on your ‘A’ game if your child is experiencing any mental health disruptions. Do what you need to be as close to 100% as possible. Don’t make excuses for it and don’t feel guilty about it. It’s a necessity! Take a look at this blog if you need ideas about how to accomplish this, and why.

  • Practice Patience-Full disclosure, this one is the hardest for me! When you see your beautiful, amazing, and capable child struggling, acting out, or becoming withdrawn or aggressive it’s hard not to want to hide under the bed sometimes. Learning to respond to their emotions and help them co-regulate will pay dividends. A good child and family therapist can help you with this too if this is an area of need you have.

  • Give extra love and care-Just like when our kids are physically sick with a cold, flu, or that broken arm, when they are in emotional pain, we need to take extra care. One of the hallmark symptoms of depression is feelings of worthlessness. Children who are depressed tend to internalize any constructive feedback or redirection as criticism. Be kind, and remember, with appropriate help and support— This too shall pass!

  • Use positive discipline strategies-To piggy back off the previous point, consequences and conventional discipline don’t usually work with children experiencing depression. Often, they are so hard on themselves, perpetuating negative self talk, that consequences, time-outs, and loss of privileges only fuels that message they are already saying to themselves, “I’m not good enough.” Positive discipline helps children learn that they are responsible, capable, and valued members of families and communities, and can counteract those distorted thoughts of not being “ok” or “good enough.” For more info on learning positive discipline, email me to set up an appointment!

    The take away? Depression in children is treatable and manageable, but there is no way to help our kids without being involved in the process. You can do it, and if you need help, I’m here!